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Patriarchal Society Alienates Sex Workers in Egypt

July 12, 2018


She rises, disheveled, out of her makeshift mattress and idly puts her clothes on. He hands her money. No words are exchanged as he leaves.

This is not a scene from a movie or an excerpt from a novel, but rather a reality experienced by many Egyptian women who turn to prostitution as a source of income.

“I got used to it and the need to earn money makes me disregard everything else,” said Abeer, a saleswoman by morning and a sex worker by night.

Abeer would pick up clients either at the supermarket she works in or from the streets she lives around the area she lives in.

“I started working as a sex worker when my colleague at work proposed I sleep with a client, and I accepted because her offer was tempting,” Abeer said glumly.

Most clients lavish sex workers with gifts, clothes and money if they like them, she added.

Abeer’s story bears all the hallmarks of the socio-economic trauma that pushes women into the downward spiral that leads them to sell their bodies.

She was involved in a physical relationship with a Christian man, one whom she could not marry. She spent money on him only to find that he married his cousin in Lebanon.

“I felt desperate and frustrated so I accepted my colleague’s offer immediately and considered prostitution as a way to get over him.”

But her prostitution soon became an economic necessity to “move up the ladder” under the brunt of economic hardship.

“I sometimes earn EGP 200 per night and I could haggle till the price reaches EGP 500, depending on the client,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the author
Between agency and society

Nada Nashaat, advocacy coordinator at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), says that this does not mean that Abeer deliberately chose to become a sex worker.

“Ninety percent of the cases that come to the center are living in poverty and they’re often forced to become sex workers whether it’s due to their low incomes, their families forced them into prostitution, or they were traumatized and considered it a way to get out,” she said.

But Nashaat says women forced into prostitution should be referred to as trafficked, and not sex working.

She said that most women forced to turn to prostitution either have children with school needs or have to take care of an elderly or sick member of the family.

In some cases, it is the women themselves who are ill and require money for medicine.

“She’s only considered a sex worker when she isn’t compelled to do this and she needs no money, she’s well-educated, and she’s determined to do this because this is her right.”

Although sex workers were legally recognized and taxed before the 1950s, today the government’s efforts to protect them are minimal, raising the risk of rape and violence against them.

Some are beaten and raped by their pimps or their clients.

Helen Rizzo, chair of the department of sociology, Egyptology and anthropology, highlighted how Egyptian law leaves free-willing sex workers unprotected within a combination of exploitative legislation, neglectful government and an antagonistic society.

Caught up in the law

According to Article 9 of the Anti-Prostitution Law (Law No. 10 of 1961), sex workers can be charged with up to three years in jail and a fine of EGP 300.

Nashaat says that if there is a proof of cash exchange for sex, the man involved is not prosecuted, but rather acts as a witness for the prosecution.

“[CEWLA] endeavors to amend this law in terms of also punishing the man since he’s the one in need of sex and pays for such act and actually exploits the [sex worker’s] need for money but is still considered a witness and she gets prosecuted,” she said.

She also referred to the law as “discriminating” since it punishes women without examining their jarring backgrounds and the root causes that often forces them into this field.

Although CEWLA is advocating for increased protection of their right, it is only permitted to offer help to any prosecuted sex worker only if it is determined that they were trafficked into prostitution.

Sex trafficking

The US State Department defines human trafficking as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”

“There’s a lady that would call me if she found a client and I would pay her EGP 200 as a fee for offering her apartment for me to use … I also call her if a client picked me up and doesn’t have a place and pay her the same fee,” Abeer told The Caravan.

Magda Adly, cofounder of the El-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, referred to sex workers as “victims of the community” and said that few women would willingly offer their bodies as capital.

“I spent more than a year in Al-Qanatir prison and during this time only one prostitution ring consisting of college girls was prosecuted. The rest were all people from a level of poverty that infuriates one’s conscience,” she said.

Research and data about sex trafficking are hard to come by in Egypt largely due to institutionalized social barriers.

Sex trafficking lacks credible statistics in Egypt, which often makes it difficult to combat.

In its 2015 annual report, the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed Egypt on its Tier 2 Watch List — a list of countries where, despite efforts, trafficking remains an increasingly significant issue.

“Egypt is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking,” the report noted.

But within two years, the Egyptian government appears to have taken “significant efforts” in improving its record of combating sex trafficking.

In its 2017 report, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said: “The government demonstrated increasing efforts by creating three specialized courts to prosecute human trafficking cases, prosecuting a government official for alleged complicity in trafficking crimes, adopting a new national anti-trafficking action plan, and conducting several trafficking awareness campaigns and training programs that addressed various forms of trafficking.”

In the meantime, the government is tracking legal loopholes used by traffickers to circumvent current anti-prostitution laws.

Children in the industry

Egypt’s morality police say that some prostitution has taken on the form of temporary marriage contracts or misyar – a Sunni marriage contract where the husband and wife both renounce several marital rights such as cohabitation, maintenance money and others.

This loophole has been particularly popular among wealthy Arab men coming to Egypt to look for temporary wives – an issue cited in the US State Department reports.

In December 2015, former Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Zend issued Ministerial Regulation No. 9200 of 2015, which relates to Law No. 103 of 1976, in a bid to regulate the registration of marriage contracts between Egyptian women and foreign men.

In 2009, Minister of Family and Population Moushira Khattab  launched a campaign against underage marriage, which has become its own touristic economy in recent years.

Certain districts in 6th of October, such as Hawamdiya, Badrashin and Abu al Nomors, have transformed into active sites for trafficking.

The Ministry found 74 percent of girls below the age of 18  were married to non-Egyptians in these areas.

The Ministry warned that these would become “potential prostitutes in the making.”

According to Article 1 of the new Regulation, if a foreign husband is 25 years older than his Egyptian wife, he must create a certificate of deposit in the amount of EGP 50,000 (around $3,000) under the wife’s name.

Despite such measures, the government is facing an uphill battle to combat trafficking and stamp out prostitution rings.

Sexing the economy

Although a recent revelation from the Morality Police that they broke up more than 140 prostitution rings netting $1 billion in revenue this year, reports from the Bureau for Protection of Public Morals indicated that the number of prostitution rings peaked in 2017.

It is no surprise that a correlation with a struggling economy and soaring inflation exists.

Egypt’s unemployment rate has surged exponentially following the 2011 Revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, rising from nearly nine percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2017. According to the national statistics agency CAPMAS, 80 percent of unemployed people are youth.

The unemployment rate to just shy of 12 percent in August this year, but with inflation many young men and women find marriage costs prohibitive. Some then turn to having extra-marital sex, fueling the growth of the underground prostitution industry.

Rizzo says prostitution is already a part of the economy, whether it’s legal or not, and that criminalizing it adds a layer of exploitation towards sex workers.

“But if it’s legal, then maybe there would be better protections. The government could also collect taxes and theoretically provide better services to [sex workers],” said Rizzo.

She said that even if the government provided sex workers with other types of work, prostitution will never disappear entirely, which is why people within the profession should have proper access to services.

“Money makes you forget about everything else,”  Abeer said.

This article was first published on The Caravan and was written by Sara Mohamed. The Caravan is the bi-lingual weekly student newspaper of the American University in Cairo, offering the community a combination of reporting and commentary on campus life, politics, popular arts and culture and the latest developments in the worlds of business, science and technology in both English and Arabic.

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